TIFF 2018: Steve McQueen’s heist thriller ‘Widows’ wows critics, Viola Davis steals the show

It has been five years since British director Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win a Best Picture Academy Award for his depiction of slavery in 19th-century America in “12 Years a Slave.” His follow-up, “Widows,” a female-centric heist film and revenge thriller drenched in real-life issues that is in stark contrast to summer’s light-hearted “Ocean’s 8,” has finally arrived courtesy of the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday.

Critics didn’t have to strain too much to wrap their heads around the fact that McQueen, whose other films were grueling and graphic descents into the world of prisoners starving in protest in “Hunger” and a man tormented with sex addiction in “Shame,” has produced a genre film, one with a brain and a script co-written by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn.

Writes Todd McCarthy of “The Hollywood Reporter,” “Handling a genre piece for the first time, director Steve McQueen ups the ante of nearly every scene by doubling and tripling the import by various means, creating in the process a provocative portrait of life on the troubled south side of Chicago. Commercial prospects look robust for this potent female-centric action drama.”

But does the gritty story of how three crime widows, left bereft and without funds after their husbands are brutally killed, decide to go after the millions of dollars they were denied meet the definition of awards season fodder?

By the sounds of it, Viola Davis – a three-time nominee who already has a supporting actress Oscar for her work in 2016’s “Fences” – will likely be the main beneficiary of awards talk. As McCarthy points out, “Davis’ Veronica, the victim of longtime deception as well as a double-whammy loss, remains at the center of the tricky plot, her need for vengeance, comprehension and, ultimately, survival providing the most burning motivation of all the women. Stern, driven, unstoppable and haunted, Veronica is the axle around which the rest of the action turns, and Davis is reliably outstanding in the role.”

Eric Kohn of Indiewire backs up his insights: “Widows” largely belongs to Davis, whose character steps into her husband’s shoes when every other option runs out. The actress has never been more commanding. … Realizing that the other widows all face a similar comeuppance, she lures them to a sauna where she lays out the scheme. Davis clearly has a blast intimidating everyone in the room, and it’s notable that her plan isn’t optional: If they don’t play ball, they’re all screwed.”

Also echoing their thoughts about Davis is Owen Gleiberman of “Variety”: “Viola Davis’s commanding performance roots this scenario in icy fear and shock. Veronica can’t believe what’s happened to her (overnight, she has lost everything), and her eyes tell you that she knows it’s just going to get worse.”

As for the script, he dings it for its very reason for being, the scheme for revenge: “There’s something a touch haphazard about the way that the heist connects to everything that has come before it. Many of the film’s dramatic scenes are so striking that it’s almost as if “Widows” would have been a better movie without the heist. (In that case, though, it wouldn’t have passed muster as a commercial thriller.)”

Of course, box-office can be its own reward, too.

Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominations are announced on January 22.

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